Understanding Sports Performance
In an evenly matched game, once engaged, the main thing that differentiates great athletes is their ability to remain focused on their goal during the course of the activity. We often see that it isn’t necessarily the most talented athletes who win.
Being aware of anything that gets in the way of an athlete’s focus on the goal – in competitive sport this is to win or beat a personal best time – has to be a core skill of serious athletes wanting to win. Rehearsing, practicing and training the physical skills ahead of the activity are critical however there is a skill to be developed once engaged in the activity and it has to do with every factor that gets in the way of mental focus (you may wish to list what these might be with your team or athletes).
The way that we think directs our emotions and therefore directs our behaviour. A professional athlete must be aware of how she thinks about her performance before, during and after the activity. If she’s not used to doing this, it is part of the coach’s job to work with the athlete to recall this afterwards (as an internal dialogue i.e. self-talk).
All serious, professional athletes are trained to tap into their inner self-talk and modify anything that interrupts their concentration on winning (the ultimate goal). This is not necessarily easy to do, however the player’s negative emotional responses are good indicators of self-talk interfering with the focus on winning e.g. experiencing anger or anxiety during the activity may result in focus being distracted from this goal. Conversely it might enhance performance. The anger is a result of the internal dialogue the player is having about the object of his anger and directed towards himself. The risk is that he is thinking about this rather than his real reason for being engaged in the activity. This applies also to panic, disappointment, embarrassment or shame at making a mistake – the self-talk risks being focused on self-condemnation and/or blame rather than moving on to attack the game.
An athlete can learn to switch off from any thoughts interfering with performance through recognising these negative emotions and then initially by practicing the alerting self-talk mantra – ‘STOP – THINK’ or ‘STOP – WIN’ or anything similar which is short, sharp and evokes the mental image of the goal e.g. winning, beating one’s personal best time, playing one’s best, etc. It must be emphasised with the athlete that her performance interfering thoughts (PITs) can be recognised through the host of negative emotions she may experience, some referred to above. Whenever these are detected, she can know that she is being distracted from the only objective, that of winning or beating her personal best.
Some Central Mind Skills of Top Performers
- Creating self-talk. Instead of negative talking to oneself before, during or after the game the athlete can acknowledge that he has choices and devise coping self-statements which should assist him in staying calm and focused on the goal. Some examples of negative self-talk might be ‘I’m the weaker player on this team’, ‘I’m not going to get picked for the next match / season / etc. if I don’t play well’, etc. These must be modified to more realistic, less global and more forgiving coping self-statements such as, ‘with each game I learn something that I know I can apply the next time’, ‘even top players have bad games’, ‘every time I run I improve my fitness, wellbeing, etc.’, etc.
- Creating visual images. An athlete can use visual images to calm himself down, to help him resist the bad habit of losing his temper, or to motivate himself when feeling beaten – e.g. bring the image back to when he last won, what he looked like, how it felt, what he was wearing, what was the weather like, who was cheering, etc. If he has problems with controlling his anger, practicing the effective imagery of visualising his anger as a red ball that he reduces in size, pushes away from him and changes colour to a softer, less aggressive colour, may help minimise his anger and assist in regaining focus. This approach works best where coupled with rehearsals involving deep relaxation or hypnosis.
- Creating rules. The player’s unrealistic rules about how he should be playing should be acknowledged as irrational and interfering on the pitch e.g. ‘I must never make mistakes’, ‘everything’s going wrong and I’m to blame’, etc. Modifying these into more realistic alternatives makes moving on from the mistake far easier for the player to do and so get his head back in the game e.g. ‘everyone makes mistakes, including the other side’; ‘we can recover from this – it’s not catastrophic’, etc.
- Creating explanations. Explain the event accurately, avoiding taking or apportioning too much responsibility e.g. ‘we are losing and it’s all my fault’, or by blaming ‘we are losing and it’s all her fault’.
- Creating expectations. Being realistic about what she can expect to achieve during the activity. How prepared, organised and alert she is will impact upon her performance. No amount of trying harder during the activity will make up for the fact that she isn’t sufficiently rested, hung-over or prepared.
Examples of Performance Interference
- Self-condemnation – this prevents the athlete from staying focused on the task where top performance is required. If she is preoccupied by her shortfalls or other perceived discrepancies, these thoughts will interfere with anything else she is attempting to do and will affect her performance during the activity. There is also a potential downward spiral effect, in that the more preoccupied she becomes with herself, the more the performance is likely to suffer, which may in turn make her even more self-conscious and open herself to blame from self / others.
- Poor preparation (including tiredness / hungover / insufficient training) can interfere with performance in two ways. Firstly, the poor preparation itself will increase the strain during the actual performance by relying on ‘quick thinking’ or improvisation to stay ‘on track’. Secondly, the consciousness of being ill- prepared is often enough to trigger other interferences such as stress, self-consciousness and even mental blocks ensuring poor performance. One Olympian athlete I worked with reported a positive strategy which was “by training as hard as I can and sticking to my diet, I have removed a huge source of worry on the big day”.
- Disorganisation, like poor preparation, renders performance more difficult and often generates stress. Disorganisation in an area related to the task will likely interfere with focusing on the task itself because part of the brain will need to be focused on ‘organising’ (being late; lacking essential gear; forgetting training dates; preoccupied with other things on one’s mind).
- Perfectionism is linked to a fear of failure and can have serious implications on performance. If the ‘perfectionist’ does not dissociate the self from the task, he may not attempt anything that could yield less-than-perfect results. Others with milder forms of perfectionism will use self-talk of ‘I should know better’; ‘I must try harder’, etc. With a chronic perfectionist, this means not trying for fear of failure (e.g. quitting the team rather than breaking down the problem into manageable parts, or remaining in a league below his potential); and in milder forms, procrastination (e.g. persistent lateness, no shows to training, matches, forgetting essential items). At its extreme, this type of interference can be not just adverse but completely performance-inhibiting.
Four examples of the perils of perfectionism:
- Procrastination: someone avoiding to perform a task because she is unsure that the result will be positive (for her). A perfectionist will expect a very high level of success which is unrealistic in the first few attempts of performing the task or playing the game. Consequently, she will less encouraged to persist for fear of not meeting her own standard.
- Fear of competition: A perfectionist is unlikely to be comfortable not finishing ‘on top’ during a competition, and may choose to avoid competing unless he is certain to win, or at least not to lose. The root cause for this behaviour is that the performance is linked to the self, therefore a ‘second rate’ finish is associated with being a lesser person. As a coach, it is important to separate winning and losing from the whole person; breaking it down into discrete steps (solutions) needed to be taken to win in the future, emphasising the good as well as what needs to be improved.
- High levels of anxiety: before, during and after a performance involving excessive preparation, days required to recover and considerable post-mortem anxiety accompanied by self-condemnation and rumination. A perfectionist will spend an inordinate amount of energy ruminating about success and failure before, during and after the performance. This is exhausting and robs the athlete of some of the valuable energy needed to win. Some have written extensively about this, one author referring to this activating our “Chimp” brain, which responds with fight or flight and high stress, rather than winning – The Chimp Paradox, Prof Steve Peters.
- All-or-nothing (dichotomous) thinking. A poor performance for an extreme perfectionist may impact the ‘self’ enough to trigger thoughts that she is an ‘overall failure’. Perfectionism stands in the way of dissociating performance and self, but also performance in other non-related areas.
Most athletes will suffer from some of these, most in a minor form. However many top-performing athletes will admit to having had to work through some of these, either on their own, or with some professional support. Some top athletes have a record of tackling anger-management, inconsistent play and this has not deterred them. If you are an athlete, you will probably recognise yourself in some of the performance inhibiting thinking here, but you are still performing well. This is great – you can now tackle the most hidden element to give yourself the greatest chance of success!
Joanne Milne MSc. is a Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist, Hypnotherapist, Performance coach and Conflict Resolution Mediator and works with athletes and business people alike.
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